The Venice Film Festival has only continued to garner momentum under longtime festival director Alberto Barbera, who in recent years has managed to lure significant star power — from Lady Gaga to Joaquin Phoenix to Timothée Chalamet to Harry Styles — to the Lido. So imagine the heartbreak and fear last month when — just as Barbera was about to lock in one of his strongest lineups yet — he learned that, as a result of the SAG-AFTRA strike, many movie stars wouldn’t be able to make the trek to Italy this year. Could Venice even take place without Zendaya, who carried what was supposed to be the opening night movie, Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers,” not to mention Emma Stone (“Poor Things”) and Bradley Cooper (“Maestro”)?
During the first few days after the actors’ strike was called July 13, it seemed to Barbera that its impact on the festival could be devastating, allowing a “real risk” that American movies could be pulled en masse from the Aug. 30-Sept. 9 event.
“I had closed the lineup, so you can imagine with what spirit I faced the following week,” he says. “I was ready to throw it all up in the air and rethink everything!”
But then he and the festival got a reprieve. SAG-AFTRA announced that independent movies — without distribution from one of the major studios — could apply for waivers so that talent could participate in events promoting these films. After a few days, Barbera started getting positive signals, as he was able to guarantee that Michael Mann’s “Ferrari” (from Neon) would still be able to stay in the lineup. And there were even encouraging signs from indie distributors that are still part of a major studio (which means their stars can’t promote the movies). Searchlight Pictures, which is behind Yorgos Lanthimos’ Frankenstein-inspired “Poor Things,” confirmed its participation, even though Stone — who plays a woman whose brain gets replaced by that of her unborn child in the film — won’t be able to attend.
Then came word that Netflix, a huge supporter of Venice — bailing on rival Cannes in 2018 over a festival rule that films in the Croisette competition must have French theatrical distribution — was still in. The streaming giant will be launching five films, even without their A-list actors, from the Lido, including David Fincher’s “The Killer,” starring Michael Fassbender as a cold-blooded hitman undergoing a moral crisis, and “Maestro,” in which Cooper plays conductor Leonard Bernstein. Cooper “had a few sleepless nights” over its participation and won’t personally be attending the fest, says Barbera. He could have tried to come as a director and not an actor, but the lines might have seemed too blurred, a source close to the decision says.
Venice, like many European film festivals, has never shied away from controversy. And in its 80th edition, the festival is leaning in on new projects by veteran directors Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Luc Besson — filmmakers who have faced legal peril and controversy over charges of sexual abuse and sexual assault. Besson has been cleared of all charges. Barbera is prepared to weather any storm surrounding the filmmakers: “I am on the side of those who say you have to distinguish between the responsibilities of the individual and that of the artist. … I am a festival director, not a judge. I judge the artistic qualities of films. And from this perspective, I don’t see why I should not invite Polanski’s film to Venice.”
(Barbera faced similar criticism in 2019 when the filmmaker’s “J’accuse (An Officer and a Spy),” won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice.)
Nevertheless, Barbera’s lineup is packed with awards season front-runners. “Maestro” will compete for the Venice Golden Lion trophy alongside other buzzy contenders from U.S. indies such as “Ferrari,” starring Adam Driver as legendary Italian auto mogul Enzo Ferrari and Penelope Cruz as his wife, and Sofia Coppola’s biopic “Priscilla” from A24 in which Cailee Spaeny stars as Priscilla Presley, the wife of Elvis Presley (played by Jacob Elordi). Barbera and the producers hope to get SAG-AFTRA waivers for these stars to be on the red carpet.
A high-profile U.S. indie that Barbera is particularly proud to have secured is Ava DuVernay’s “Origin,” inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winner Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” about the system of hierarchy that has shaped American society. “Origin” marks the first time a female African American director has made the cut for a Venice competition berth.
“It’s a film that transcends the confines of controversies on racism that we have been accustomed to for decades and finally moves the discourse to another, more complex, level by contextualizing racism within a broader discourse on inequalities within society, based on the caste system,” says Barbera. He has high hopes that the film’s star Aunjanue Ellis, and the rest of the “Origin” cast — including Jon Bernthal and Vera Farmiga — will be making the trek to the fest, though this remains to be seen.
DuVernay also served as a producer of the film through her Array Filmworks, with financing from private equity fund J4A, which is dedicated to social justice projects. She’ll be honored by international AIDS organization amfAR with its Award of Inspiration Sept. 3.
Despite the support from companies such as Netflix and Searchlight, the strike pushed the originally planned Venice opener, Guadagnino’s “Challengers,” out of the fest. The decision was made by the tennis drama’s distributors and producers Amazon, MGM and Warner Bros., against Guadagnino’s wishes.
“Challengers” was replaced as Venice’s opening film by Italian anti-war epic “Comandante.” Directed by Edoardo De Angelis, the movie toplines Italian star Pierfrancesco Favino as a heroic Sicilian World War II naval captain. It’s one of six Italian films in Venice competition this year, including Matteo Garrone’s “Io Capitano,” about the Homeric journey of two young African men who leave Dakar to reach Europe, and Saverio Costanzo’s “Finally Dawn,” which is set at legendary Cinecittà studios during the 1950s, when the famed filmmaking facilities were known as “Hollywood on the Tiber.” Lily James, Joe Keery, Rachel Sennott and Willem Dafoe star.
But, luckily, in terms of films, the impact of the U.S. actors’ strike is “very modest,” as Barbera puts it.
All told, there are 82 features films from 54 countries unspooling on the Lido in the official selection, roughly 30% directed by women. Barbera says this ratio reflects roughly the same percentage of films submitted by female directors this year and reps an increase in female representation compared with past editions.
Venice’s 23-strong competition sees five films from female helmers. “We are far from the gender parity we all strive for, but it’s a slow process that we hope won’t stop,” he points out.
By comparison, the Cannes competition fielded seven films from women. But female filmmakers are on a roll with major fest awards lately — “Anatomy of a Fall,” from Justine Triet, won the Palme d’Or while Laura Poitras earned the Venice Golden Lion last year for “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.” While female filmmakers may be a little scarce, Poitras was the third female director in a row to take the Lido’s top honor. (Audrey Diwan’s “Happening” won in 2021, while 2020 was Chloé Zhao’s year with “Nomadland.”)
Despite the diverse array of films and filmmakers, Barbera remains sanguine about his inclusion of the new films from Polanski and Allen, both of whom, as Allen has put it, have “toxic pariah” status in the U.S.
“Woody Allen went under legal scrutiny twice at the end of the ’90s and was absolved. With him, I don’t see where the issue is,” says Barbera, referring to the fact that Allen has never been charged for child sexual abuse allegations from his now-grown daughter, Dylan, allegations that Allen denies. Polanski pled guilty in 1977 to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor but fled the U.S. before sentencing in that case. He lives and moves freely between Switzerland, France and his native Poland.
Barbera calls Polanski’s situation paradoxical. “It’s been 60 years [sic]. Polanski has admitted his responsibility. He’s asked to be forgiven. He’s been forgiven by the victim. The victim has asked for the issue to be put to rest,” he notes.
While Polanski, who turned 90 on Aug. 18, won’t be making the trek to the Lido to launch his black comedy “The Palace,” set in a posh hotel in the alpine resort of Gstaad on the eve of the new millennium, Allen — who is 87 and in September will be touring Italy with his New Orleans Jazz Band — is expected at the festival for the bow of his Paris-set romantic thriller, “Coup De Chance.”
So Barbera will have to navigate a #MeToo backlash after managing to stay afloat amid the SAG-AFTRA strike. He hopes the latter will soon be resolved for the sake of the types of films that launch from the Lido.
“The reasons for the strike are fully understandable,” Barbera says, citing urgent issues ranging from residual rights disputes with streamers to the need to regulate the use of AI.
But for the festival director, a protracted strike risks delaying lots of quality film releases just as moviegoing was starting to show signs of some newfound post-pandemic traction.
Says Barbera: “If we go through more months of sporadic and more rarefied releases, with just a few magnet movies like ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’ getting onto screens, this will exacerbate the evanescence of the moviegoing habit and widen the disconnect between audiences and auteur cinema.”